Don Giovanni at Bronx Opera
by Gregory Moomjy
It’s scary to think that it is almost ten years since I was in college. As a budding musicologist it should come as no surprise that I took an Introduction to Music History and to this day one assignment stands out. Our professor instructed us to write a short paper describing our concept for a production of Don Giovanni with one caveat. We were not allowed to portray Mozart’s evergreen anti-hero as Bill Clinton. Apparently, the comparison had been made too often in the past.
I have been thinking about that assignment a lot lately, as I prepare to see precisely four productions of Don Giovanni between this season and the next. Whether it’s Ivo van Hove’s version at The Met, Francesca Zambello’s staging at The Glimmerglass Festival, or one of the smaller companies here in New York City, it seems like everyone wants to reimagine the Don.
And why not? The opera is ripe for reinterpretation in the #MeToo era. The piece has a lot to say about gender politics, social class and power. There is no denying that Giovanni is a rapist and deserves his punishment. But the savy production can explore why the Don has everyone, both men and women, under his control. On January 12th I attended Bronx Opera’s version at Lehman College. The auditorium is surprisingly intimate and offers great views into the orchestra pit. This is great for the large orchestral forces required by many of the rare works they perform.
Currently in the midst of its fifth decade the company performs two mainstage works each season, both sung in English. They typically pair a canonical piece with a seldom heard opera. A recent season saw Rossini’s La Cenerentola share billing with Marc Blitzstein’s Regina, a gripping adaptation of Lillian Hellman’s play The Little Foxes. This year Mozart’s famous dark comedy shares the stage with Bedrich Smetana’s The Bartered Bride.
Don Giovanni is one of those operas where it is imperative to stage the first scene right. Let’s just get one thing absolutely clear, Don Giovanni, begins with a rape. It is a rape that sets the whole story in motion. It is a rape that causes the death of an elderly nobleman as he tries to distract, if not, fight off his daughter’s attacker. This subsequent death caused by a rape, causes the assaulted noblewoman Donna Anna by name, to spend the rest of the opera desiring nothing but vengeance. Vengeance not just for her lost honor, but also for the death of her father. It is unfortunate to have to emphasize again and again that the opera starts with a rape. Yet sadly many new productions stage the opening attack not as an assault, but as consensual sex. This completely recalibrates the entire plot, depriving the work of its message and its punch.
Rod Gomez, who directed this production, can congratulate himself on staging possibly the most harrowing opening scene of Don Giovanni. Not only was the rape made visible on stage during the overture, but Donna Anna’s father, the Commendatore, was brutally murdered in the truest sense of the term. The opera was updated to modern times, hence Giovanni carried a gun instead of a sword. However, the Commendatore did not die by a bullet. He entered Donna Anna’s room a tottering old man with a cane, and Don Giovanni beat him to death with it. Additionally there was a plethora of female supernumeraries who did everything from entertain the Don at his meals, to fending off Leporello’s advances during the Catalogue Aria.
The English translation by Benjamin Spierman, General Director of Bronx Opera, made plain not just the opera’s misogyny but also what the libretto says about class strictures. It was clear that Giovanni’s nobility, a title he was given at birth, is the only reason why he could abuse his power to the lengths that he does. The translation was full of derogatory references to peasants, additionally in the recitative before “Dalla sua pace,” Don Ottavio mentions that he wants to wait for more proof before he damages a fellow aristocrat’s reputation.
In the pit, Michael Spierman gave a buoyant reading of the score. He clearly relished the hellish harmonies during the overture and the final scene.
Before going further into a discussion of the singers, it is important to note that unfortunately they were all by varying degrees hard to hear. What’s more, despite the great work Bronx Opera does, this is a persistent problem at their shows. Nonetheless, Markel Reed was an appropriately imposing Giovanni, who could also sing with great technique, as seen in his rendition of “Deh, vieni alla finestra.” The aria, performed as a ballad with boom box accompaniment, was the only part of the libretto sung in the original Italian. Halley Gilbert and Elisabeth Slaten both gave poignant performances as Donna Anna and Donna Elvira, respectively, both women have their own intense struggles to go through. Donna Anna needs to make sense of the horrific events that happened to her, and Donna Elvira struggles with her feelings for Don Giovanni. Both performers conveyed their respective struggles to an excellent degree, and Slaten was able to throw an excellent performance of “Mi tradi quell’alma ingrata” into the bargain. Brian J. Alvarado was an appropriately sardonic Leporello. As Zerlina, Elyse Ann Kakacek, deployed her sweet high soprano to great effect. This peasant bride was less wily than naïve. The Commendatore, Michael Janaros Cofield, possesses a lighter voice than most basses who sing this role. Fortunately, he seemed to warm up for the final scene.
On the whole, this Giovanni was definitely eye opening. It says a lot not just for the enduring power of this opera, but also for the caliber of work that comes out of local opera companies. I’m currently halfway through my cycle of four Giovannis, but this is definitely one that the others will have to measure up to.